Carrol Henderson has raised Minnesota’s nongame wildlife program since it hatched 36 years ago, fostering both species and good will.

Standing on Mississippi River shoreline, gazing at hundreds of trumpeter swans cavorting there, Carrol Henderson can’t help but feel a sense of satisfaction.

Once nearly absent from the state, the huge birds with 7-foot wingspans were reintroduced in the 1980s through the efforts of several agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources nongame wildlife program, headed by Henderson. Now, more than 5,000 trumpeters thrive here, including the hundreds that gather each winter on the Mississippi River near Monticello.

“It’s an overwhelming feeling,’’ said Henderson, who played a key role in jump-starting the population with trumpeter eggs from Alaska.

The recovery of Minnesota’s swans is one of the biggest success stories of the state’s nongame wildlife program, launched 36 years ago. Henderson, 66, is the oft-recognized face of the program he’s headed since its inception. One of the first such programs in the nation, it also is credited with helping restore the peregrine falcon and bluebird populations as well as reintroducing otters to western Minnesota and monitoring the state’s beloved loons.

In all, the program is responsible for more than 700 nongame species.

“Carrol has been one of the biggest household names the DNR has had,’’ said Steve Hirsch, director of the DNR’s Ecological and Water Resources Division. “He’s so passionate and committed to nongame wildlife that he inspires others to feel that way, too."

Though once a one-man show, the program now has 16 employees working around the state to help nongame wildlife. Volunteers, groups and other agencies have been instrumental in the program’s success, too, he said.

“Ours is a tiny program,’’ he said. “We can’t do all the work. We’ll never have enough money. But if we get people inspired to help wildlife through our program, it multiplies itself many times over.’’

Henderson has kindled citizen interest by authoring five books for the DNR, including “Landscaping for Wildlife,” “Woodworking for Wildlife,” “Wild About Birds: The DNR Bird Feeding Guide,’’ and “Lakescaping for Wildlife and Water Quality.’’ More than 250,000 copies have been sold.

“If you can show people what they can do on their own property, they’ll do it,’’ Henderson said. “People say it’s changed their lives.’’

The nongame wildlife program is unusual in that it is almost entirely dependent on donations.

“People think we get money from the lottery and from the Game and Fish Fund [from hunting and fishing license fees], but we don’t,’’ said the DNR’s Lori Naumann.

A tax-form checkoff was launched in 1980, allowing state taxpayers to donate to the program. Last year, 66,000 residents gave more than $1 million. That generated another $1 million match from the state’s critical habitat license plate program, which is funded by citizens voluntarily paying an extra $30 or more for a wildlife license plate. And the program got another $700,000 in matching federal grants.

It turns out Henderson probably has been the largest donor. All royalties from his DNR books — more than $250,000 so far — have gone to the program.

While Minnesotans have consistently donated more than $1 million to the program via the tax checkoffs, there are concerns.

“The number of people contributing has been declining, though the amount they give has increased,’’ said Naumann. Twenty years ago, 130,000 people gave an average of $7.37. Last year, the 66,000 contributors — about 2 percent of those who filed tax returns — gave an average of $16.14.

“I know more than 2 percent of our population cares about wildlife,’’ Henderson said. The falloff might be tied to the passing of older, conservation-minded citizens.

“We’re losing them, like older hunters and anglers,’’ he said. “We have to make a more concerted effort to reach young people and create future conservationists.’’

Some recent wildlife issues have hurt donations, too, Henderson said. The reinstatement of a mourning dove hunting season in 2004, the launching of a sandhill crane hunting season in 2010, and the opening of a wolf hunting season last fall are examples.

“We got letters, phone calls, e-mails” from people opposed to hunting those species, said Naumann.

A remote video camera that peers into an eagles’ nest near the Twin Cities is one way the program has tried to reach more people this winter. Three eggs produced by the adult pair failed to hatch, but the live feed, available on the DNR’s website, generated 100,000 unique viewers and $1,700 in donations, some from out of state.

Meanwhile, Henderson said he’s still having too much fun to retire.
“This is such a rewarding job, I don’t see a good reason to head out the door.’’